Book Review: Dispersals, by Jessica J. Lee

Jessica J. Lee is the author of Turning, a book that chronicles a year of wild swimming in lakes and streams around Berlin, even in the middle of winter when she has to bring a hammer to break the ice. Her second book, Two Trees Make a Forest, unearths the history of her maternal grandparents as they moved between China and Taiwan, which she visits to meet family and learn more about her roots. Her latest book, Dispersals, combines elements of her previous two books in 14 essays that address migration—both hers and her parents and grandparents—and that of plants and weeds that have become part of our everyday vernacular.

Lee starts by telling the reader that, during the writing of the book, she and her family moved between two countries, three cities, and four houses—mostly during the early years of the pandemic. Hers is a story of upheaval, in tandem with pregnancy and a new baby to further complicate matters. As she writes in the prologue, “These are essays written for a world in motion. Plants that, in dispersal, might teach us what it means to live in the wake of change.” The essays in the book examine what it means “to be a plant out of place.” An invasive weed, for example, or a fruit crop brought to the New World for propagation, like oranges or mangos.

Lee quotes British nature writer Richard Mabey, who says that weeds “obstruct our plans, or our tidy maps of the world.” But weeds like the giant hogweed she focuses on in one essay, whose sap causes photosensitive burns, are native to the Caucasus and were originally brought to the UK as ornamental plants; this is often how many plant species arrived. Here on the west coast we have Scotch broom, an invasive species brought by colonists that wanted ‘a little bit of home.’ It colonizes disturbed sites, is highly flammable, and its seeds remain viable for decades. Lee wants us to consider how we name plants: cultivated, native, alien, colonist. How these words can sometimes mirror the language we use to describe immigrants. When we call plants invasive, alien, or colonizers, “we are implying a desired order for the world at large.”

Lee’s essays generally cover plants she’s loved since childhood: mangos, soy beans and soy products, bok choy and other plants in the mustard family, seaweed, oranges, pine trees, and tea. She traces the environmental history of many of these plants: when they were domesticated, how they were grown, how they travelled the world and became naturalized in various countries. How maybe they began as weeds until they were domesticated into something useful to humans. The long lineages of some of these plants, like tea, which has a 5000 year legacy in Asia but has only been in Europe for the past 500 years, make it difficult to draw the line between what is an introduced species and what is now a naturalized species.

Lee also writes about being drawn to the British landscape, its cottages and cottage gardens, its rolling hills and fields defined by hedges, in part due to the paint-by-numbers she used to do with her British grandmother. She also said in an interview with me that it’s a landscape that those of us brought up in commonwealth countries are most familiar with. This echoes what Amitav Ghosh wrote in The Nutmeg’s Curse, that colonialism in the New World involved ‘terraforming’ the landscape to look like the colonists’ home: Britain.

Lee plays with style and structure between essays. The first essay jumps between timeframes, each one a vignette about wild swimming and water, while the essay on the USDA’s exploration arm is written tongue in cheek with headings of “Portrait of the Explorer” and “A Vision of the World.” Then there’s the sour fruit essay, which reads like a series of information snippets, and doesn’t have the same lyrical flow as the other essays. The final essay is written as a letter to her daughter, with definitions tied into each individual section.

Ultimately, Lee wants us to think about the history of plants, the language we use to describe them, and the landscapes to which we and they are connected. She wants us to consider plants as mobile entities, not just rooted in place. Just as humans migrate and disperse, plants do, too. Sometimes over long distances and between continents.

This is Lee’s best work so far, a tight nut of a book that answers all of your questions before you can even ask them. It neatly ties together the migration of plants and people, addresses ecological baselines, and makes readers think about what we cultivate, why, and how. As Lee noted in an interview with me, it reminds us that “there is no pristine nature or wilderness—no Eden for us to return to.” Something to consider the next time you drink tea or eat an orange, a mango, tofu, or seaweed.

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